In a somewhat questionable marketing endeavour, the Eastern Cape Region has been sign posted, ‘Frontier Country’ and indeed this is what it is. Historically it is the site of the 9 Frontier Wars and much brutal conflict and living here presently can still seem the edge of nowhere by comparison to many major South African metropols. With Grahamstown at the heart of it, it is also a cosmopolitan space not without vestiges of past pain but - like many colonial outposts in a post-colonial time - it is no longer a satellite to an absent motherland, a mere microcosm of elsewhere, but also a world unto itself.

A potential space of intellectual, debate rather than military conflict – geographically isolated from metropolitan trends – a melting pot of many places, a crucible. In more recent history, this frontier space has been a site of culture, of experiment. Home to an annual arts festival, how is it that Grahamstown with a population of just under 140 000 can command so much creative imagination in novels, plays, poetry and art? Frontier, Border, at the end of the world but not about to fall off – merely at a vantage point to observe a view to come.
- Rat Western

DISCHARGE 2012             COLOUR COLLOQUIUM 2010             SYNTHETIC DIRT 2011

Friday, July 8, 2011

Distorted Echo

by Charles Maggs
In our ultra-mediated societies today, constructed behaviours and actions from popular culture are increasingly reflected in day to day reality, like a powerful feedback loop between the synthetic, processed or constructed world and that of the analogue, human or ‘real’ world. The medium may be the message, but the question is what happens when you hold up a giant mirror to this signal.

This paper is concerned with the politics of imitation, real-world mash-ups and other accidents of ultra mediation in contemporary society. It is less about Elvis impersonators or people who act out scenes from Star Wars in their back gardens, and more about how these imitations and coded behaviours have began to invade the mechanisms of state.

These invasions are where the accident of ultra-mediation can be observed. An identifying symptom of this accident is the proliferation of imitation and repetition. More and more events and situations in the real world, and in the mechanisms of state, are similar to each other and to those from popular culture. This paper will identify examples of these reflections, explore their likeness in the world of popular-culture and look at contemporary South African artistic practice that revolves around these concerns.

Before we explore this terrain there are two useful theoretical spaces that contextualise it.
The first one, a recurrent theme in Paul Virilio's writing, is that of the integral accident. Where for example to invent the Jumbo jet is to inadvertently invent the jet disaster, this thesis is proposed in the book The Information Bomb and more broadly teased out in ‘Unknown Quantity’. It may be pessimistic, but it is also a useful way of looking more soberly at the hidden affects of the technologisation of society. I have used this filter to ask what is the accident of hypermediation and attempt to explore some of the possibilities here. 

Slavoj Zizek ,in his book Violence, writes about the 'predominant mode of politics' today being post-political bio politics. A fine piece of jargon to be sure. Split in two the term is explained thus. Post-political suggests politics that has moved away from ideology and instead focuses on 'expert management and administration.' 'Bio-politics' 'designates the regulation of the security and welfare of human lives as it's primary goal.'  He goes on to explain that 'bio-politics is ultimately the politics of fear' and this is a very powerful mechanic that frames our hypermediated era.
If ideology has indeed been superseded and fear has taken its place, then we must accept that media is the delivery mechanism of this globalised fear.

In 1994 South Africa Nelson Mandela was sworn in as South Africa’s first black president, he ended his inauguration speech with the words, ‘Never, never and never again shall it be that this beautiful land will again experience the oppression of one by another and suffer the indignity of being the skunk of the world.’  This speech not only represented the end of the institutionalised racism of Apartheid, but also signified the end of South Africa’s cultural isolation, this confirmed by the sheer number and scope of international leaders and dignitaries that attended this event.

The first part of this sentence ‘Never, never and never again’ recalls the title of the 1983 James Bond film 'Never Say Never Again' and while this may be a banal reflection the similarity is unmistakable. Both phrases use repetition to lodge themselves in the mind and are designed to sound iconic. This is also the kind of sound byte that the media extracts and shown repeatedly in news broadcasts throughout the day.

In 2008 Barrack Obama became the first African American to be elected President of the United States. This of course was preceded by numerous portrayals of black presidents in popular culture. the most convincing in the late 20th century  is Morgan Freeman as president Tom Beck in Deep Impact directed by Mimi Lede and released in 1997, ten years prior to Barrack reaching the oval office, The African American president became a recognizable Hollywood archetype following this, much like the black American police chief became an established norm in the late 70’s TV shows. Obama used the words YES WE CAN as the key phrase for his successful presidential campaign. After the fevers of the Bush administration this phrase and what Obama was promising had the capacity to galvanise support for him. This slogan has it’s reflection in popular culture from the theme tune of the children’s TV series Bob The Builder that debuted in 1998. The opening four lines to this theme tune are as follows.

Bob the Builder
Can we fix it?
Bob the Builder
Yes, we can! 

The phrase ‘YES WE CAN’ is repeated throughout the theme tune and the intonation is remarkably similar to Barak Obama’s during his campaign. In the United States there is a comfort with the intermingling of popular culture and high politics as epitomised by Hollywood b-film actor Ronald Regan being elected president in 1980. Paul Virilio refers to George H W Bush as ‘very much the soap opera star  and George W Bush felt like a distorted re-run of George H W Bush complete with his own me too Gulf War.

Here hypermediated politics shares attention space with popular culture. This relationship is a structural necessity owing to the vast size of the USA, mass media is the primary means of connecting to the electorate. Here it is as much by osmosis as anything else that the coded behaviors from popular culture have been transferred to the realm of the political.

 In 1961 Hendrik Verwoed was the Prime Minister of South Africa, following a referendum on the subject, he declared South Africa a republic and we ceased being a Common Wealth Realm. On this occasion Prime Minster Verwoed said: “The tendency in Africa for nations to become independent, and at the same time to do justice to all, does not only mean being just to the black man of Africa, but also to be just to the white man of Africa.”   Of course we all know how being just to the white man ended. There is however no reference in popular culture for these words. Verwoed and his National Party were deeply threatened by popular culture, so much so that broadcast television would only reach these shores in 1976. And even then my generation spent a good part of their childhood staring at the test pattern due to the limited amount of programming.

Anton Kanemeyer’s work ‘W is for Wet-Rag Suffocation Technique’ (2010) from his Alphabet of Democracy exhibition uses the language of cartoons to represent the kinds of brutality that Verwoed's words would lead to. It shows a member of the security forces demonstrating water torture to shocked members of the TRC panel. This work connects the key geographic points in this paper. This kind of brutal torture technique is the legacy of our past. 1994 signaled the end of these state sanctioned human rights abuses on these shores. This work also recalls the iconography of Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay, but the brutality at its heart is perhaps the legacy of our colonial past.
The United Kingdom, aside from owning parts of South Africa on and off from 1815, has not yet had a Black Prime Minister. Their political landscape is also not as visibly colonized by popular culture as their American counterparts. However the following example shows how codes from hyperviolent cinema have become transposed into their civic mechanisms. In response to the 9/11 bombings in the United States, London’s Metropolitan Police developed a defense strategy to deal with suspected suicide bombers, It was called Operation Kratos  and in essence it was a shoot in the head to kill policy.

Aside from Kratos reflecting cinematic hyper-violence, there are also a series of reflections from pop culture embedded in this defense strategy. The whole operation would be over seen by a person in a command centre, designated as Gold Command. Recalling Gold Leader or Gold One from Star Wars . One of the possible operations under Kratos was operation Andromeda which was developed to ‘deal with a spontaneous sighting of a suicide bomber by a member of the public’.  Named after the Michael Crichton novel The Andromeda Strain - about ‘a deadly alien micro organism that infects humans, clotting their blood, causing insanity and leading to suicide or murder suicide.’

The result of Kratos was the 22 of July 2005 shooting of Jean Charles Demenzes, seven times in the head and once on the shoulder at the Stockwell Tube Station on the London Underground
Demenzes was mistakenly identified by the Police as Osman Hussain who at the time was suspected to have been involved in the failed bombing attack in London on July 21, 2005. Demenzes was not a terrorist but rather an electrician from Brazil. During an inquest into the shooting of Demenzes that followed, the Metropolitan Police produced an image using the left hand 3/8’s of  Osman Hussains face and 5/8’s of Demenzes face in an attempt to justify the case of mistaken identity. The creation of this image is very much a Face/Off  strategy, an attempt to transplant Hussains features onto those of Demenzes.

I produced a series of works based upon this image. My starting point was the original image, it struck me that the Face/Off Photoshop job by the Metropolitan Police was unfinished so I decided to complete the task. I later realised there was a possibility to make six images from the original photographs by cutting and connecting them in different ways. It was notable that the second image was harder to produce using the right hand side of Osman’s face and the left hand side of Demenzes’ it didn’t produce the satisfying symmetry of the first image and that’s why the Metropolitan police has not used those two.

There was a repeat of this Stockwell scenario at Bournemouth Station in 2008 where Nzube Udezue a student at Oxford and a rapper was also mistakenly identified as a perpetrator of a particular crime. Udezue had just returned from Southampton where he had been promoting his music. As he stepped off the train he was accosted by members of the special firearms unit, he was however luckier than Demenzes in that he was not shot and once it was realised that it was a case of mistaken identity he was released.

In South Africa we are no strangers to learned behaviors from popular culture, – in his book The Number’ Jonny Steinberg writes about how gang lore is influenced by cinema.”It would be no exaggeration to say that street gang life … was organised around the cinema. The Dobermans took their name from a French gangster film. The Sicilians took their inspiration from The Godfather. Going into street battle, gangsters would shout out lines from The Gladiators” .

Ed Young’s recent interventions at IDHASA reading rooms in Cape Town have white washed his bad-boy image to transform him into a kind of poster boy for democratic activism. The flying arch has been well publicized and I am sure The Arch himself has prayed for Ed’s soul. His interventions on the signage of the outside of the building connect to his pared down white on black word pieces of recent years. There is some functional information and a series of slogans, telling us we should ‘BEE NICE’, a mashing of mobile phone speak and topical issues of the day asking about a ‘GOVERNMENT HUMMER?’ The subject of government RV‘s leads to the next topic.

On the 10th of February 2010 Chumani Maxwele was arrested for allegedly making a gesture towards President Zuma's motorcade. In an action reminiscent of the bad old days of Apartheid, Maxwele had a bag placed over his head and was bundled off in one of the BMW X 5's. He was moved between several police stations held for over 24 hours without food, his house was searched. Ultimately he was made to sign some kind of confession and was released.

President Zuma himself did not witness the gesture and Maxwele had no idea who's motorcade it was. Maxwele said he merely waved them on, but the body guards insist that there was a 'vile gesture' involved. Whether Maxwele’s gesture was vile or not is less significant than the vicious response his actions triggered. It would appear that the role of the body guards has shifted, no longer is their task solely to ensure the safety of the president, now they are also tasked with protecting the objects of power. These objects are the location of the illusion of power.

Stuart Bird's piece ‘Two Fingers’ opened at Young Blackman a few days after these events and was the beneficiary of providential timing and locus. The events were being hotly debated in the media at the time and this gallery was directly en-route to parliament. Never mind that ‘the bird’ is also the colloquial term for the two fingered gesture – triple whammy.

According to Bird the work is about exclusion, on the inside the viewer is met by the victory or peace sign while on the outside it is the vile gesture itself.  The inner circle vs the security cordon. Those in the inside are welcomed and patted on the back while those on the outside are left with no ambiguities about how they are regarded.

Continuing our theme of events repeating themselves there was a rerun of the Maxwele incident in March 2010, The journalist Tshepo Lesole, after photographing Zuma’s empty motorcade was man handled by Zuma’s security detail and forcibly made to delete the images he had taken of these empty vehicles.

This suggests that the illusion of power has become as significant as power itself and must be upheld just as vigorously. It reflects the world of celluloid culture which is completely dependant upon constructing and maintaining a series of illusions in-order to be and remain marketable. Power has long been linked to a series of spectacles but what is significant is the intensity which the spectacle of power is being protected.

In our hyper mediated age, popular culture has become a barometer for how to behave and belong in society. Imitation connects the individual to the mechanism of the mass. In the case of politics it aides the individual in being noticed, becoming popular and ultimately getting elected.
The accident being that the most media friendly politicians may not always be the best leaders.
What we have also seen is that when you transfer this to the civic mechanisms of power and control, an entirely different, often violent accident seems to emerge. An accident that is more often enacted upon the individual than the mass, and one that is starkly at odds with the liberal democratic systems they take place within.

Charles Maggs is a Cape Town based visual artist and lecturer.

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